It's trial by Fuego for FC Tucson soccer opener
Opponent is league champion, boasts of experienced line-up
After a year of playing in a "provisional" league and barnstorming up and down Interstate 10 to take on professional and college teams, Saturday it's for real. FC Tucson will play their first game in the Premier Development League, when the team faces off against the Fresno Fuego at 7 p.m. at Chukchansi Park.
"The guys are super excited," said coach Rick Schantz in a phone call after arriving in Fresno.
Excited is understandable, but Schantz stops short of cocky.
"There is nothing like starting your franchise off against the best team in the nation," Schantz said, putting the best face on what is expected to be a tough contest.
Fresno is not only the current PDL champion, they are one of only two teams in the League that ended last season without a loss. The other undefeated team was the Ventura County Fusion, which Tucson plays on June 16.
Fresno's impact player for the last two seasons was former Chivas USA and Puerto Rico Islanders forward Milton Blanco. Blanco made 22 goals in 30 appearances for the team, and earned League MVP honors last year. Blanco has moved on to the second division Charlotte Eagles.
The loss of Blanco hasn't slowed down the team. Fresno started their season a bit early, already notching up two victories against LA Misioneros FC. Schantz and assistant coach Jon Pearlman had a chance to scout the team during one of those games.
"They're a very big team, very mature," Schantz said, comparing the team to his squad of mostly college-age players.
"They're not little boys. They've got pace. They're aggressive," he said.
There is also a tactical issue for Schantz. Fresno plays in the outfield of a local baseball park, and the field is narrower than what his side is used to. The team has counted on width in the midfield, but now he's talking about switching up to a diamond formation in the middle of the field.
"We're not going with traditional wingers," he added.
He's also making some changes at the back. In preseason games, the backline was anchored by centerbacks Reid Schmidt and Trinidad and Tobago international Kareem Smith. He may try Smith on the outside.
"We expect to defend a lot," he said, acknowledging Fresno's record.
Fresno isn't only a winner off the field, they also boast of some of the best turnouts in the League. The attendance at their home opener on April 22 was reported at 4,273. They are expecting an even bigger crowd for Cinco de Mayo.
The team has a promotional tie-in with the Fresno Grizzlies, a Pacific Coast League baseball team, and they share a stadium. Interestingly, the Grizzlies were known as the Tucson Toros until 1997.